The hashtag varies. The stories might be set in the future, the past, on Earth or far, far across the universe, but one thing is constant – Doctor Who fans are turning up to tweet along to landmark episodes alongside the people who wrote, made and starred in them.
The Who-themed watchalongs were the brainchild of Doctor Who magazine’s Emily Cook. She says the idea came to her in bed one morning, as the UK was on the cusp of the lockdown. “I was thinking about the state of our world and how life was about to change quite dramatically,” says Cook.
“I often use TV, particularly Doctor Who, as escapism, and I needed a pick-me-up. I suspected other people would be in the same position, so I sent a tweet saying I’m going to be watching The Day of the Doctor on this day this time, why don’t we have a communal viewing experience?”
Former Who showrunner Steven Moffat saw that the event was happening and got in touch. “Having Steven involved took it to another level,” says Cook. She has since organised watchalongs including contributions from the writers Russell T Davies, Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis.
The BBC has been hands-off. Aside from the odd encouraging message from Chris Chibnall and the publicity machine, Cook has been left to her own devices. “They love the fact that it’s an organic fan thing,” she says.
Fandoms being fandoms, there have been some high-profile, ill-tempered social media gripes, but the overwhelming response has been incredibly positive, Cook says.
“A lot of people say these events are helping to keep them sane. To begin with, I thought: that’s a lovely thing to say, but I didn’t quite realise the significance. I think what they mean is that it’s a really strange and scary time; people are isolated and uncertain of the world and have nothing to look forward to. People are saying it’s nice to have something in the diary they know they are going to enjoy – and that they can do with other people.”
While Cook is the Tim Burgess of the Doctor Who world – the Charlatans singer has been holding Twitter listening parties – her task has been helped by the willingness of some of the people involved in the show to generate new material. Chris Chibnall has written a new short story, while Jodie Whittaker filmed herself at home in costume doing a skit about being in self-isolation from an army of Sontarans, with a reassuring message for younger viewers of the show. There is also a new BBC website – Staying in the Tardis – providing educational resources and activity ideas for young fans trapped inside during the pandemic. This weekend, a new Moffat-penned mini-episode featuring Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas will be released.
Another former showrunner, Davies, has also written new material, including a moving coda to the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. In it, key cast members presented a tribute to the much-loved Elisabeth Sladen, to provide some closure to the series after her death from cancer in 2011.
It isn’t just those directly involved in the show who have had a flurry of lockdown-related creative activity, though – fans have, too. Matthew Rimmer has set up Time Scope, an unauthorised anthology of short stories, poetry and artwork. It is raising money for the charity Scope, which has a black hole in its finances due to its shops being shut.
A fan for nearly 30 years, Rimmer says that the level of interest in the anthology was way beyond what he had anticipated. “The anthology includes contributions from 95 people aged 13 to 90,” he says. “Fans submitting their material have said they were grateful for this creative outlet as a distraction from lockdown blues. It has been a huge learning curve to put it together, but the kindness from internet strangers and virtual friends has been beyond my expectations.”
Away from TV, there is still plenty of new Doctor Who being made – and a Time Lord who can defeat Daleks and Cybermen isn’t going to be phased by the complexity of remote recording.
Big Finish, which has been making audio plays featuring original Doctor Who cast members for more than two decades, has released a new story – Shadow of the Sun – featuring Tom Baker that was recorded under lockdown conditions.
Nicholas Briggs, the creative director of Big Finish and the voice of the Daleks on TV, says: “It’s a rather bizarre experience doing things this way. It’s all new, and yet strangely very similar. Recording people in their homes is almost just an extension of our usual working practice.”
It has made new technical demands on the actors involved, with Louise Jameson, who played Leela on Doctor Who in the 70s, revealing that “I’ve made a comedic makeshift studio outside my bathroom door. I use a laundry basket, a hat stand, a duvet and foam rubber to soundproof everything.”
Big Finish has also experimented with live broadcasts, streaming some of its audio stories over YouTube, with actors and writers including the eight Doctor, Paul McGann, tweeting and chatting along. It has also made a weekly series of free audiobook “lockdownloads”.
In all of this, the sense of togetherness among Doctor Who fans is clear. As Cook says about the TV watchalongs: “It’s an age where our viewing habits are so separate. This idea of actually saying: ‘We’re all going to do this at the same time,’ really captures people’s excitement.”